There are many articles out there about overcoming imposter syndrome, framing it as just a side effect of being a high achiever - articles called “5 Types of Imposter Syndrome and How To Stop Them”, stating imposter syndrome is mostly an individual psychological phenomenon that can be addressed with some self-help and mild pep-talk.
There are so many humblebrags on Twitter of people mentioning that they have imposter syndrome because they just learned something cool or have great colleagues. A term casually thrown around to signal “I am quite clever but today I feel humbled, just so you know”.
And… there are so many hot takes belittling the term itself. It isn’t real! They’re just humblebragging! It’s just clickbait pop-psychology articles!
So yeah, I used to think that too. I used to think that feeling like a tiny little spec of dust in comparison to the complexity of computer science, to the intellectual achievements of an interconnected humanity was, well, just normal, and people better get over it.
But that is not what imposter syndrome is about. It is not about feeling like a fraud because you don’t know something, or because someone knows way more things than you; in fact, I think that’s healthy. You should feel like a fraud in the face of the awesomeness of computing. No-one can actually claim to know what they are doing when they sit in front of a computer, but you should be humbled to be in the company of people who actually kind of do know their stuff.
But imposter syndrome is about feeling like a fraud because OTHER PEOPLE THINK YOU ARE. It is about feeling excluded, because other people exclude you. It is a valid feeling.
And that is why taking imposter syndrome seriously is so important.
Now, I’m a white straight dude in tech, I have no kids, I’m healthy and I have a good family. That means I have the privilege to learn the things I want to learn, the privilege to will most stressors out of my life with a quick Paypal transaction or a tap of my iPhone. It means that people more often than not think I know what I’m doing, or at least think I have the potential to do so. It means that most people around me look like me and have some reasonably (as you will see below) similar backgrounds (look at any technology survey to see how disheartening that statement actually is). That means I can find the right tone and make the right jokes and fit in without too much effort.
It also means that I am in a prominent position to make other people feel like imposters.
Because most of my peers have a similar background (and ethnicity, gender and other markers), people without that background will stick out, and thus feel ostracized. It is easy to be unaware of unspoken norms, behaviors, ways of thinking and communicating that will reinforce that exclusion. It is not enough to think “I have the best of intentions”; if you are a member of the majority (and by definition, most of you are), it is your responsibility to go out of your way to make people feel included.
This doesn’t mean helping them understand how to solve a problem, or giving them resources on getting better at technology X, Y, Z, or offering mentoring (all those things are good once someone is accepted). It means acting in a way that makes them feel understood and accepted. It means not making certain jokes, as funny as they are. It means understanding that they do not need your help, necessarily.
Here’s a trick I use to keep myself in check. Because I often feel the need to be “a mentor” for people I think don’t belong, I tend to be extra helpful. That’s cool, and I do think I have a few words of wisdom to impart here and there, else I wouldn’t be writing this blog. But it only goes so far when the person in question is my peer, not someone looking for advice.
What I do is try to imagine people as a slightly mean version of Peter Norvig (who I admire). I wouldn’t say “Hey Peter, let me show you how keyboard shortcuts can really improve your developer workflow” or “Hey Peter, did you know that Typescript is a really neat way to catch errors at compile time”, especially if he’d just glare at me with an angry look.
Now it might not work for you to picture a 28 year old Chinese woman as a mean version of Peter Norvig, but it works for me.
While I’m a white dude in tech, I’m also a white dude who dropped out of college due to untreated mental illness, has been dealing with substance abuse from my teens to my mid-thirties, lived in poverty most of my adult life, emigrated from Europe to the US and consistently gets mistaken for a student even though I’m verging on 40 (so much for projecting authority). I also am weird and socially awkward - I like computers so much that I don’t care about real life all that much (thankfully my wife is quite understanding). I am not going to delve into mental health and emigrating into this blog post, but I will come back to it later.
Working in the tech industry in Boston, where seemingly everybody graduated from MIT or Stanford or some such place, has a healthy American ego and gusto, never smoked, never lived in a disaffected factory with people who lost their brain on cocaine and meth, it was actually very easy for me to feel excluded. There is not really a support group for people like me. And so I felt out of place. I assumed it was just the comfortable blanket of feeling intimidated by all the technology out there. But actually, it was a real feeling of exclusion.
I am still slowly wrapping my brain around the fact that there is a difference between “I feel like an imposter because I am just some dumb flesh in the realm of computers” and “I feel like an imposter and I have no power because people see me as the weird kid who can type really fast but doesn’t really understand what they’re doing and never will”. When I have it figured out, I’ll write some more.
We’re all straddling boundaries of in-group and out-group. We are all fighting with a world where knowledge gets created incessantly, and we will never know even a fraction of what is out there. We all have good reasons to feel insignificant and out of our depths. There are also very bad reasons to be made to feel like imposters by other people, or to make other people feel like imposters.
Here’s what I try to keep in mind:
- Be mindful of who feels like an imposter because of your behaviour.
- Be mindful of casually throwing around the term “imposter syndrome” when you really just mean “I feel humbled”.
- Be mindful of yourself when your peers are excluding you.
- Be mindful of how you can help others feel accepted and competent.
Do you feel like an imposter? Do you feel like you make other people feel like imposters? How do you make people feel more welcome in your peer group? Have you ever felt excluded at work?